The head of the state Division for Youth acknowledged Thursday that some "bad apples" have worked in Buffalo's group homes but said some significant changes have been made.
"We have some problems," Leonard G. Dunston told the Erie County Community Council on Children and Families. "We have some bad apples among us. Changes are occurring and have occurred. When we see a problem, we take immediate action."
"I've gotten rid of two people already," he added, referring to his dismissal of the director of the Buffalo homes and the head of one home two years ago after finding what he called horrible conditions during a surprise visit. "I have no bones about it."
But Dunston offered few specifics about the changes and warned that union contracts and the state's budget problems add difficulty to doing some of what he wants to do.
Dunston acknowledged that, at times, youths in the group homes run away and commit crimes, but he downplayed any suggestion that the homes pose security risks.
"Security of the communities is uppermost in our minds," Dunston said.
The Council on Children and Families, a county group that coordinates various agencies dealing with youths and families, invited Dunston to its meeting in the Rath County Office Building to answer questions raised about the state-run group homes in a series of articles published Sept. 30 to Oct. 4 by The Buffalo News.
It was the first time Dunston publicly commented on the Buffalo group homes, but his spokesman in Albany previously disclosed that the state was looking into the problems outlined in articles. The state inspector general's office is conducting the investigation.
Following Thursday's meeting, John A. Fisher, Council chairman, said he sympathizes with Dunston's problems trying to run a major juvenile justice program. Fisher said the council believes it can help the county's troubled youths by developing alternative programs to keep them out of the state homes.
The four group homes in Buffalo's residential neighborhoods are supposed to house youths up to 18 years old who have had minor scrapes with the law or can't get along with their families.
The News reported that the homes are poorly supervised and plagued by violence. Youngsters receive sporadic counseling, routinely run away and commit crimes, and encountered one counselor who, they claimed, offered them drugs and money in exchange for sex.
Dunston said he found the Buffalo group homes in horrible condition during a surprise in July 1988. As a result, Dunston said, he fired two administrators -- Louis Benton, director of the group homes, and Thomas Overfield, who was in charge of the former Elmwood Avenue group home.
He also ordered a major restructuring of the Buffalo operation, closing the Elmwood home and naming a new director of the Buffalo group homes.
"I made the decision to restructure and terminate two of the directors," he said.
During much of the two-hour meeting, Dunston outlined the division's varied responsibilities. He said the youths coming into the state system have become tougher and more difficult.
Because of overcrowding in some of the state's secure centers, some youths are being sent to the group homes to make room for new residents in the centers, he said.
Leonard Lenihan, a council member and majority leader of the County Legislature, asked Dunston if the group home workers are qualified to handle these tougher youths, some of whom have been sexually abused or involved with drugs.
Dunston said most of the workers who deal with youths are required to have a high school education.
He added that hiring college-educated employees would cost more money and might not be worth it. Studies, he noted, have shown that those with college educations have a more difficult dealing with street-wise youths, like those committed to the Division for Youth.